By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 29, 2006; A04
A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that prosecutors may not examine documents seized from Rep. William J. Jefferson's Capitol Hill office until the congressman has a chance to review them for privileged legislative materials.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered the Justice Department to copy the seized materials and show them to Jefferson. The Louisiana Democrat will have two days to go through them and submit any challenges. A district judge will determine whether challenged materials relate to legislative activity and should be withheld from investigators.
Jefferson and congressional leaders objected strenuously to the Justice Department's May 20 raid on his office, saying it was an abuse of the separation of powers.
But earlier this month, Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan ruled that the raid was constitutional, saying the government "demonstrated a compelling need to conduct the search" in the ongoing public corruption probe.
Jefferson is appealing the ruling, but appellate judges David B. Sentelle, Janice Rogers Brown and Thomas B. Griffith said that action will be put on hold during the document review.
"We're pleased" with the ruling, said Robert P. Trout, Jefferson's attorney. Trout had argued before Hogan that Jefferson should have been able to separate out legislative documents before they were seized, but the lower-court judge disagreed.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse praised the appellate court's swift ruling. "Clearly they understand the importance of this matter," he said.
Jefferson, 59, is being investigated by the FBI for allegedly taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for using his influence to aid African business ventures.
Brett M. Pfeffer, a former Jefferson aide, and Vernon L. Jackson, the owner of a Louisville-based technology company, have pleaded guilty to bribing Jefferson.
The congressman has not been charged with a crime and has repeatedly denied breaking the law.